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Meet Burgundy’s New Generation of Forward-Thinking Vignerons

Environmentally-conscious winemakers are revolutionizing the Côte d’Or

Betsy Andrews By February 10, 2022
grand cru and premier cru vineyards in Côte de Nuits
Green grand cru and premier cru vineyards in Côte de Nuits, Burgundy. Photo by Nuits-Saint-Georges/iStock.

For Burgundy, 2021 was a lousy year. First there was drought, then an early April bud break that coincided with a killing frost, followed by hail, in June, no less, which led into what seemed, not like summer, but an endless winter and a very late harvest. Some estates lost 70% of their grapes. 

In the Côte de Nuits village of Chambolle-Musigny, Antoine and Prune Amiot must have felt like they dodged a bullet. The siblings behind Domaine Amiot-Servelle were down just 25% of an average harvest. Their vines had been strong enough to withstand the frost, Antoine suggested, in part because of how Prune, the winemaker, had undertaken the activity with which she shares a name.

“We prune by the lunar calendar,” said Antoine, because they believe it influences the sap in the vines. “We only prune during a decreasing moon, which is just two weeks a month, so we didn’t finish until the beginning of April. When the frost came, we still had very few buds started. We believe that decreased the frost’s impact.”

entrance at Domaine Amiot-Servelle winery

The entrance at Domaine Amiot-Servelle winery. Photo courtesy of Domaine Amiot-Servelle.

He was standing in a construction zone at the edge of a foggy vineyard in the middle of his village. A few years ago, the siblings bought the winery from their parents, both scions of old winemaking families who established their own domaine in 1990. Now the siblings are building a brand-new winery. Designed to be state-of-the-art while conforming to Chambolle-Musigny’s preservationist ways, the facility will hang down into the vineyard, making it all but invisible from the street. It will also be net-zero — constructed with locally sourced materials, outfitted with rain catchment, and insulated with hay. Would that the Amiots could do more.

“We are not allowed to have solar panels because of the historic nature of the village,” said Antoine.

Forward-thinking and affordable

All around Burgundy, which locals would prefer was known as Bourgogne, similar activities are underway, as a new generation of wine producers takes the helm from their elders and enacts changes that meet the realities of a warming, unstable planet. In Côte de Nuits and Côte de Beaune, vignerons are making excellent wines from climats, or vineyard plots, that share in the 2,000-year-old, UNESCO-recognized heritage of the Côte d’Or. This thin strip of hillside ranging from Dijon south to Maranges encompasses Burgundy’s Grand Cru appellations. Yet, unlike the cult producers for which the Grand Crus are famed — Domaine Leflaive, Domaine de la Romanée-Conti — many of Burgundy’s young, forward-thinking vignerons remain less known, and they’re turning out bottles that the average consumer can afford. 

Take the Amiots. Their most acclaimed Premier Cru, the spice-and-earth Les Amoureuses, made with grapes from a site said to be equal to the Grand Crus, clocks in at over $300. But others — smoky, savory Les Plantes; floral, red-berry Les Fuées — are a half to a third as costly. And the Bourgogne Côte d’Or, from grapes grown on the opposite side of the Vouge River from the village’s Premier Crus, is strawberry-fresh and quaffable but with a structuring minerality, for all of $33.

The wines benefit from Prune’s approach to the grapes. Her father, Christian, was the first in the village to obtain organic certification in 2008, but Prune, a 2019 recipient of the Burgundian award for young winemakers, the Trophée Jeunes Talents, has gone further, decreasing copper and sulfur use, introducing cover crops for the health of the soil, and using plant-based treatments, such as the thyme, oregano, and savory Prune sprayed to concentrate sap sugars and lower the frost point on her young buds last year. She’s so keen on these treatments that she launched a phytotherapy association to promote them among her Burgundian peers.

She is employing a lighter touch in the winery as well, easing up on tannins by swapping her father’s punch-down method for gentler pump overs. “That’s due to the evolution of the climate, too,” she says. “Before, the grapes had less maturity. Now we have to be very careful of the extraction.”

A lighter touch

At Domaine Jessiaume, a certified-organic estate with a 172-year history in Santenay in the Côte de Beaune, winemaker and chef de culture William Waterkeyn has also abandoned the heavier-handed methods of the past. He picks early to retain acidity and relies on cold maceration, soaking skins at a lower temperature to extract full color while retaining freshness. Though he ages wines on the lees for texture, he does minimal bâttonage, stirring the lees just barely because, as he says, “I prefer to keep the character of the fruit.” His vibrant Premiere Crus — mineral, herbaceous Auxey-Duresses Premier Cru Les Ecuasax Blanc; rich-bright Santenay Premier Cru Les Gravières Les Gravières Blanc; spicy Beaune Premier Cru Les Cents Vignes — sell for under $60.

Like Waterkeyn, who worked at Oregon’s Rex Hill, Adrien Pillot is among this new generation who’ve gone abroad for winemaking experience. Pillot was working in New Zealand and Australia when his father, Laurent, called him home. The fifth-generation at Domaine Fernand & Laurent Pillot in the Côte de Beaune’s Chassagne-Montrachet, he is among a growing cohort of new Chassagne winemakers. “We are a lot of young people,” he says. “For me, winemaking is about tasting with friends,” and working with them to transform the area’s viticulture. On his estate’s 37 acres, Pillot has achieved Haute Valeur Environnementale certification by farming organically, “firstly for myself,” he says, “because I’m the man who has to spray and be in the vineyard afterwards.” He is participating in a no-till study of 10 Chassagne vineyards, where soil samples will reveal the effects of removing the plough from the land. He’s thinking about acquiring sheep to weed and fertilize. “We used them in New Zealand. They are really stupid, to be honest, but really useful,” he says.

Laurent et Adrien Pillot in their winery

Laurent et Adrien Pillot are fifth-generation at Domaine Fernand & Laurent Pillot in the Côte de Beaune’s Chassagne-Montrachet. Photo courtesy of Domaine Fernand & Laurent Pillot.

For his many cuvées, his target is a balance between structure and fruit. “I think it’s more my generation that likes roundness and fruitiness,” he says. “Maybe a little less complexity.” Climactic changes have abetted stylistic ones. “Pommard, for example, used to be beefy. Now it’s fruity.” Nevertheless, his Pommard Tavannes offers plenty of meatiness, along with anise and ripe cherry flavors. His Pommard Premier Cru Les Rugiens combines rice-pudding spice with bright cranberry notes, while the whites reveal a similar harmony. The weighty Les Grandes Ruchottes Premier Cru melds juicy fruit and earth to taste like lychees crushed on a dusty road.

Like Pillot and others of his generation, Charles Magnien, who took over his family’s Domaine Henri Magnien & Fils in the Côte de Nuits village of Gevrey-Chambertin in 2009, is more climate-smart than his predecessors. He prunes his canopy higher to provide the airflow that decreases mildew pressures so he can farm organically. In 2018, he built a new winery. “It’s clean, efficient, and temperature-controlled, not like my grandfather’s cement tanks,” says this 12th-generation producer. 

There, he makes only Pinot Noir. His Gevrey-Chambertin Premier Cru Estournelles Saint-Jacques has a huge, flowery bouquet and a quaffable, sorbet-like character. His Ruchottes-Chambertin Grand Cru is reminiscent of a just-baked strawberry tart, its fruit seeping from a fragrant crust. That wine runs around $400. But his biggest production, the Gevrey-Chambertin Vielles Vignes, is far more affordable. Starting with a wildflower and black raspberry exuberance and finishing nice and lean, it’s a versatile wine that’s ideal for drinking straight through a meal — and, as is the won’t of the modern consumer, right away. Though Magnien thinks his Grand Cru will hit its peak in 15 years, in general, he says, “I’m not into wine you must keep.”

There’s excellent value to be found

Such vignerons, with moderately priced wines of high quality, offer an excellent introduction to the region. “It is important to explain to people it’s possible to find good Burgundy wine at a good price,” says François Ambroise. The winemaker at Maison Ambroise in Nuits-Saint-Georges, Ambroise joined his family’s domaine in 2010. Farming organically and using minimal sulfur, he produces an enormous variety of wines. Whites range from a bristling, appealing Bourgogne Aligoté that costs all of $23 to a Saint-Romain that tastes like a blend of honey, lemon, and sea spray, and a zesty, buttery Nuits-Saint-Georges Premier Cru Les Terres Blanches. His reds start at $30 with a peppery, red-fruit Bourgogne Hautes Côte de Nuits and run the gamut to a Corton Grand Cru le Rognet that’s as chocolatey and spicy as Oaxacan negro mole.

“I never want to just stay in my cellar after I make a wine. I always want to make another,” he says. But if that’s a sign of the restlessness of his generation, for visitors to the region who want to check out his work, it bodes well that there’s one old-timey thing from which Ambroise will not stray. “In Burgundy,” he says, “it’s tradition: The door is always open.”

Betsy Andrews visited Burgundy courtesy of the BIVB.

3 wines to try:

Bottle of Amiot Servelle Bourgogne Rouge

Amiot Servelle Bourgogne Rouge 2019 (~$33)

This certified-organic Pinot Noir from award-winning young winemaker Prune Amiot is completely de-stemmed, and only 10% of it is oak-aged — in light-toast barrels no less — so it’s bright, fresh, and full of strawberry notes with a touch of funk and enough minerality to play well with any kind of grilled or roasted pork.

Bottle of Henri Magnien Gevrey-Chambertin Vieilles Vignes

Henri Magnien Gevrey-Chambertin Vieilles Vignes 2020 (~$60)

Using organically grown fruit from 40- to 100-year-old vines, 15% of which he keeps whole cluster and a quarter of which sees new French oak, 12th-generation vigneron Charles Magnien achieves a wine with a heady floral bouquet, flavors of black raspberry and wild herbs, and a mouth-coating texture that finishes bone-dry. It’ll go with steak and the vinaigrette-dressed salad you serve with it.

Bottle of Domaine Jessiaume Santenay Premier Cru Les Gravières Blanc

Domaine Jessiaume Santenay Premier Cru Les Gravières Blanc 2019 (~$40)

From what winemaker William Waterkeyn calls “a very interesting premier terroir” on a sunny, gravelly southeastern-facing slope in Santenay — a site known for its excellence — this Chardonnay achieves a high degree of ripeness. Waterkeyn ages it in 25% new oak for a gorgeous, lush texture and brûléed pineapple flavor, undergirded by a stony minerality. Eat it with a rich, saucy chicken dish.